WINSLOW — With one of its six full-time firefighters out on medical leave until at least July, the short-staffed Winslow Fire Department has turned to the Town Council for a stop-gap solution. After unanimously approving the hiring of an additional full-time firefighter at its meeting on Monday night, the council met again Friday afternoon to discuss longer-term plans to address the employee shortage.

Cam Aucoin will step into the new full-time firefighter position within the next two weeks, according to Fire Chief Ronnie Rodriguez. Aucoin was formerly a member of the department’s part-time call force.

While Aucoin’s promotion allows the Winslow Fire Department to meet its minimum staffing requirement — two full-time firefighters on duty during each of the three shifts — Rodriguez told officials that the town’s requirement is well below the level recommended by the National Fire Protection Association. NFPA, Rodriguez wrote in a Dec. 4 email to Town Manager Mike Heavener, recommends a “minimum two in two out rule prior to entering an IDLH (immediately dangerous to life or health) environment.” This problem has reached many municipalities throughout the state, including Waterville, Fairfield and Oakland, for several years.

There are currently seven full-time firefighters and 20 part-time, paid-per-call firefighters working for Winslow.

On Friday, Rodriguez explained to Heavener and members of the council that in order to meet the national standard, Winslow would need to hire five additional full-time firefighters. Rodriguez is expecting the return of the injured firefighter, Lt. Scott Higgins, in six to eight months, which would bring the total number of full-time firefighters in Winslow to 12 — if the town approves the expansion. The five positions would add $343,000 to the Fire Department’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Rodriguez said he could have candidates lined up and ready to start by July 1.

The meeting on Friday was informational, and the council did not make any decisions. Councilors Jerry Quirion and Ray Caron were not present.

Throughout the conversation, Rodriguez and the council expressed reluctance at the prospect of raising Winslow residents’ taxes.

“When I walk down the streets, I’m not the chief, I’m that person that raised my taxes,” he said. “And this is the other thing, but this is serious. These people work hard, and a lot of them are on fixed income.”

Councilor Ken Fletcher expanded on that.

“Our job as the council is to make decisions, but it involves some obligations to the taxpayers to be able to put the rationale forward as to why this is something we need and that I think … I could talk to somebody and say, ‘Look, here’s the reason: This isn’t a capricious and arbitrary decision. There are situations that we need to deal with, and this is the change, if we decide to do it, that we need.'”

Rodriguez acknowledged that many other towns’ fire departments have staggered through staffing shortages of their own, but that Winslow could catalyze positive change throughout the area.

“I can’t speak for what another neighboring jurisdiction is going to do, but I can guarantee you that once we do it, they’re going to be saying, ‘They’re on to something; what are we missing?'” Rodriguez said, adding later that “we need to be able to position ourselves for not just now but the future, and that’s where I’m trying to help us get to.”

Steve Russell, council chairman, agreed.

Winslow Fire Chief Ronnie Rodriguez talks with town officials Friday at the Winslow Town Office about adding more full-time firefighters.

“A frustration for me over the years is that … we don’t look at the future enough,” he said. “We don’t think of five-year plans. We’re going from one year to the next.”

In his December memo to Heavener, Rodriguez noted that the costs of expanding the department’s full-time staff ultimately could be offset by introducing an ambulance service. That would provide expanded services to Winslow-area residents and also bring in revenue generated from transports, but it would require upfront investments in an ambulance vehicle, equipment and training.

“It can be implemented incrementally by purchasing a used ambulance and utilizing the current staff and progressing to using staff licensed at the paramedic level,” Rodriguez wrote.

Councilors opted to address that option later.

Rodriguez added concern that since stepping in as chief in September, he has observed an average of one to four members of the call force — less than ideal — respond when their service is requested.

“There was a fire on Augusta Road (recently),” he told the council. “The third alarm — there were basically four requests for personnel to get here, because there wasn’t enough people to mitigate the incident. If that was a-blazing, … that house would have been gone; and at that point, what good are we?”

On top of that, only three out of 20 firefighters in the call force have Firefighter I, Firefighter II and EMT-Basic certifications, which he described as “the necessary level of training to be used in all facets at a fire scene.” This means that when people arrive at a scene, they are not all authorized to perform the same actions.

“The thing I’d like for you guys to understand is that out of these (20) people, the way it’s been set up, is when we strike the all-call, I might get two, I might get 15. Regardless of skill or qualification, they come, and if they’re no use to me other than a wheel chock, we’re still paying them.”

“And you don’t have the skill set that you need,” Fletcher added.

Rodriguez expanded on that in his email to Heavener.

“Simply having the desire to join (the call force) does not translate into completion of the training or an ability to respond when needed,” Rodriguez wrote. “The reasons contributing to the failure to complete the training (and respond to scenes) range from an extended training time (every other weekend plus a weeknight for six months), realization that they aren’t suited for this line of work, competing commitments (family changes, job commitments, etc.), and pay.”

Rodriguez told the council that to address that, he hopes to create a department policy that would require the completion of Firefighter I and Firefighter II training by a set date.

“I’m trying to get us into the 20th century — not the 21st century,” he said Friday. “I’m just trying to get us to where we’re safe and where we need to be.”

If the council decides not to hire five additional full-time firefighters in the upcoming budget season, Rodriguez said, alternatives to the staffing shortage could include expanding the call force and hiring firefighters either per diem or part time. He stated that recruiting more members to the call force would be the least costly option, but it would not solve the existing problem of firefighters not being able to respond for various reasons. Hiring individuals per diem or part time would be a more dependable option, with similar downsides, and still less desirable than hiring full-timers.

“This isn’t the end of this discussion,” Fletcher said.

Meg Robbins — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @megrobbins

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